My dad, Frank Spaulding, was born in 1936 on an army base outside of Birmingham, Alabama. It was a rough time for the Spauldings. If you lived in rural Alabama during the tail end of the Great Depression, odds are it was a rough time for you, too. Dad never came right out and said “we were poor back then,” but it was there in his stories about those days. He had this hilarious one about the family buying a mule that up and died the very day they got it. It took me years of growing up to figure out that the reason that story was so funny to my father in his middle age was because it must have been such a catastrophic family crisis in his youth. Oh my Lord, the mule! The mule is dead and all the money we spent on the mule is gone. How on earth are we going to make it through the next month?

Dad had plenty of stories about that early part of his life. They were all funny and strange on the surface – having a pet pig that ended up as dinner, trying to give pills to a flock of chickens and losing track of which chicken had gotten what, being tricked by his mom into hours of labor at the butter churn – but underneath they were all about hard work, making do, and getting by. Having myself grown up in affluence in the western suburbs of Chicago, it’s a kind of life and a way of living I find difficult to get my head around.

Granddad (Frank Spaulding Sr.) was army, so the family did plenty of moving around. My dad was actually at Pearl Harbor the day the Japanese bombed it – one of his earliest memories was of men out on their front lawns with shotguns, shooting at the sky. The family went back to Alabama for the duration, and later spent time in Germany while granddad was helping manage the occupation. Then my father went to college in Pennsylvania and did his own service in the navy, which took him to the Philippines, French Indochina, China, and, after some time as a civilian in San Francisco, back to Indochina – only then they were calling it Vietnam.

In San Fran he started his own family, which eventually made it out to the western suburbs of Chicago (by way of Texas), and by the time his branch – my branch – of the Spauldings was settled there, he was so well-traveled, so widely experienced, you would never have guessed Dad was ever a country boy from Alabama. He didn’t look it, didn’t act it, and certainly didn’t sound it.

Except when he got mad.

Dad didn’t get mad very often. He was probably the steadiest, most self-controlled man I’ve ever known, and he considered anger wasted energy – unproductive. But he was a human being and I could be a thoughtless, petty, inconsiderate kid, especially during my surly teen years. Dad would never raise his voice, but sometimes you would hear certain words… slip. He might say fit for fight, or far for fair, but the one you had to listen hardest for was caint for can’t. If he said, “Son, you can’t go doing that,” maybe – just maybe – you could get away with it. If he said, “Son, you caint go doing that,” then you really, really couldn’t go do it.

In fact, because Dad was such a self-controlled guy, because he so rarely gave his stronger emotions free rein, I spent a lot of my youth listening for tiny variations in his speech patterns, trying to divine from my father’s vowel sounds the man’s true inner state.

And I’m still listening. Any time I hear one accent slipping through another I’m reminded of how it used to be a window into my dad’s mood, and a reminder of his personal history. This is probably the most common with actors: Nicole Kidman is very good, but she still has a slight Aussie twang – never in her high-emotion scenes, but just in little, in-between moments that you would never think to redo in the studio. Ditto for Naomi Watts. Listening to her in Mulholland Drive fascinated me. And have you seen Garden State yet? While Ian Holm does a wonderful job as Zack Braf’s dad, it’s impossible for him to completely bury his inner Welshman.

There are people I meet through work, or friends of friends I’m introduced to, who will open their mouths and after a bit have me rattling off the names of cities in my mind. Is that Dallas? Is that Little Rock? Did she study in Manchester? Brixton? Were his parents from Copenhagen? Brooklyn? Sao Paolo? Here in the Midwest, where everyone talks alike and everyone tries to talk like us, the smallest variations stand out like trees in the middle of the prairie. Six years my father has been gone now, and still I find myself listening – sometimes even when there’s nothing to listen for – hoping to get some hint at what a person is feeling, at where a person has been. I’m even listening to myself, right now, as I type these words on the page. Is that Chicago? Is that Berkeley? Is that Birmingham?

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